Sir Walter Scott as a Critic of Literature
by Margaret Ball
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[Transcriber's note: All footnotes have been gathered at the end of the text.]






Copyright, 1907 BY THE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS Printed from type November, 1907



The lack of any adequate discussion of Scott's critical work is a sufficient reason for the undertaking of this study, the subject of which was suggested to me more than three years ago by Professor Trent of Columbia University. We still use critical essays and monumental editions prepared by the author of the Waverley novels, but the criticism has been so overshadowed by the romances that its importance is scarcely recognized. It is valuable in itself, as well as in the opportunity it offers of considering the relation of the critical to the creative mood, an especially interesting problem when it is presented concretely in the work of a great writer.

No complete bibliography of Scott's writings has been published, and perhaps none is possible in the case of an author who wrote so much anonymously. The present attempt includes some at least of the books and articles commonly left unnoticed, which are chiefly of a critical or scholarly character.

I am glad to record my gratitude to Professor William Allan Neilson, now of Harvard University, and to Professors A.H. Thorndike, W.W. Lawrence, G.P. Krapp, and J.E. Spingarn, of Columbia, for suggestions in connection with various parts of the work. From the beginning Professor Trent has helped me constantly by his advice as well as by the inspiration of his scholarship, and my debt to him is one which can be understood only by the many students who have known his kindness.




Introduction: An Outline of Scott's Literary Career 1


Scott's Qualifications as Critic 9


Scott's Work as Student and Editor in the Field of Literary History

1. The Mediaeval Period (a) Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border 17 (b) Studies in the Romances 32 (c) Other Studies in Mediaeval Literature 40

2. The Drama 46

3. The Seventeenth Century: Dryden 59

4. The Eighteenth Century (a) Swift 65 (b) The Somers Tracts 70 (c) The Lives of the Novelists, and Comments on other Eighteenth Century Writers 72


Scott's Criticism of His Contemporaries 81


Scott as a Critic of His Own Work 108


Scott's Position as Critic 134


I. Bibliography of Scott, Annotated 147 II. List of Books Quoted 174 Index 179


1802-3 Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (edited).

1804 Sir Tristrem (edited).

1806 Original Memoirs written during the Great Civil War; the Life of Sir H. Slingsby, and Memoirs of Capt. Hodgson (edited).

1808 Memoirs of Capt. Carleton (edited).

1808 The Works of John Dryden (edited).

1808 Memoirs of Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth, and Fragmenta Regalia (edited).

1808 Queenhoo Hall, a Romance; and Ancient Times, a Drama (edited).

1809 The State Papers and Letters of Sir Ralph Sadler (edited).

1809-15 The Somers Tracts (edited).

1811 Memoirs of the Court of Charles II, by Count Grammont (edited).

1811 Secret History of the Court of James the First (edited).

1813 Memoirs of the Reign of King Charles I, by Sir Philip Warwick (edited).

1814 The Works of Jonathan Swift (edited).

1814-17 The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland.

1816 Paul's Letters.

1818 Essay on Chivalry.

1819 Essay on the Drama.

1819-26 Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland.

1820 Trivial Poems and Triolets by Patrick Carey (edited).

1821 Northern Memoirs, calculated for the Meridian of Scotland; and the Contemplative and Practical Angler (edited).

1821-24 The Novelists' Library (edited).

1822 Chronological Notes of Scottish Affairs from 1680 till 1701 (edited).

1822 Military Memoirs of the Great Civil War (edited).

1824 Essay on Romance.

1826 Letters of Malachi Malagrowther on the Currency.

1827 The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte.

1828 Tales of a Grandfather, first series.

1828 Religious Discourses, by a Layman.

1828 Proceedings in the Court-martial held upon John, Master of Sinclair, etc. (edited).

1829 Memorials of George Bannatyne (edited).

1829 Tales of a Grandfather, second series.

1829-32 The "Opus Magnum" (Novels, Tales, and Romances, with Introductions and Notes by the Author).

1830 Tales of a Grandfather, third series.

1830 Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft.

1830 History of Scotland.

1831 Tales of a Grandfather, fourth series.

1831 Trial of Duncan Terig, etc. (edited).

* * * * *

1890 The Journal of Sir Walter Scott.

1894 Familiar Letters of Sir Walter Scott.



Importance of a study of Scott's critical and scholarly work—Connection between his creative work and his criticism—Chronological view of his literary career.

Scott's critical work has become inconspicuous because of his predominant fame as an imaginative writer; but what it loses on this account it perhaps gains in the special interest attaching to criticism formulated by a great creative artist. One phase of his work is emphasized and explained by the other, and we cannot afford to ignore his criticism if we attempt fairly to comprehend his genius as a poet and novelist. The fact that he is the subject of one of the noblest biographies in our language only increases our obligation to become acquainted with his own presentation of his artistic principles.

But though criticism by so great and voluminous a writer is valuable mainly because of the important relation it bears to his other work, and because of the authority it derives from this relation, Scott's scholarly and critical writings are individual enough in quality and large enough in extent to demand consideration on their own merits. Yet this part of his achievement has received very little attention from biographers and critics. Lockhart's book is indeed full of materials, and contains also some suggestive comment on the facts presented; but as the passing of time has made an estimation of Scott's power more safe, students have lost interest in his work as a critic, and recent writers have devoted little attention to this aspect of the great man of letters.[1]

The present study is an attempt to show the scope and quality of Scott's critical writings, and of such works, not exclusively or mainly critical, as exhibit the range of his scholarship. For it is impossible to treat his criticism without discussing his scholarship; since, lightly as he carried it, this was of consequence in itself and in its influence on all that he did. The materials for analysis are abundant; and by rearrangement and special study they may be made to contribute both to the history of criticism and to our comprehension of the power of a great writer. In considering him from this point of view we are bound to remember the connection between the different parts of his vocation. In him, more than in most men of letters, the critic resembled the creative writer, and though the critical temperament seems to show itself but rarely in his romances, we find that the characteristic absence of precise and conscious art is itself in harmony with his critical creed.

The relation between the different parts of Scott's literary work is exemplified by the subjects he treated, for as a critic he touched many portions of the field, which in his capacity of poet and novelist he occupied in a different way. He was a historical critic no less than a historical romancer. A larger proportion of his criticism concerns itself with the eighteenth century, perhaps, than of his fiction,[2] and he often wrote reviews of contemporary literature, but on the whole the literature with which he dealt critically was representative of those periods of time which he chose to portray in novel and poem. This evidently implies great breadth of scope. Yet Scott's vivid sense of the past had its bounds, as Professor Masson pointed out.[3] It was the "Gothic" past that he venerated. The field of his studies, chronologically considered, included the period between his own time and the crusades; and geographically, was in general confined to England and Scotland, with comparatively rare excursions abroad. When, in his novels, he carried his Scottish or English heroes out of Britain into foreign countries, he was apt to bestow upon them not only a special endowment of British feeling, but also a portion of that interest in their native literature which marked the taste of their creator. We find that the personages in his books are often distinguished by that love of stirring poetry, particularly of popular and national poetry, which was a dominant trait in Scott's whole literary career.

With Scotland and with popular poetry any discussion of Sir Walter properly begins. The love of Scottish minstrelsy first awakened his literary sense, and the stimulus supplied by ballads and romances never lost its force. We may say that the little volumes of ballad chap-books which he collected and bound up before he was a dozen years old suggested the future editor, as the long poem on the Conquest of Grenada, which he is said to have written and burned when he was fifteen, foreshadowed the poet and romancer.

Yet Scott's career as an author began rather late. He published a few translations when he was twenty-five years old, but his first notable work, the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, did not appear until 1802-3, when he was over thirty. This book, the outgrowth of his early interest in ballads and his own attempts at versifying, exhibited both his editorial and his creative powers. It led up to the publication of two important volumes which contained material originally intended to form part of the Minstrelsy, but which outgrew that work. These were the edition of the old metrical romance Sir Tristrem, which showed Scott as a scholar, and the Lay of the Last Minstrel, the first of Scott's own metrical romances. So far his literary achievement was all of one kind, or of two or three kinds closely related. In this first period of his literary life, perhaps even more than later, his editorial impulse, his scholarly activity, was closely connected with the inspiration for original writing. The Lay of the Last Minstrel was the climax of this series of enterprises.

With the publication of the Minstrelsy, Scott of course became known as a literary antiquary. He was naturally called upon for help when the Edinburgh Review was started a few weeks afterwards, especially as Jeffrey, who soon became the editor, had long been his friend. The articles that he wrote during 1803 and 1804 were of a sort that most evidently connected itself with the work he had been doing: reviews, for example, of Southey's Amadis de Gaul, and of Ellis's Early English Poetry. During 1805-6 the range of his reviewing became wider and he included some modern books, especially two or three which offered opportunity for good fun-making. About 1806, however, his aversion to the political principles which dominated the Edinburgh Review became so strong that he refused to continue as a contributor, and only once, years later, did he again write an article for that periodical.

In the same year, 1806, Scott supplied with editorial apparatus and issued anonymously Original Memoirs Written during the Great Civil War, the first of what proved to be a long list of publications having historical interest, sometimes reprints, sometimes original editions from old manuscripts, to which he contributed a greater or less amount of material in the shape of introductions and notes. These were undertaken in a few cases for money, in others simply because they struck him as interesting and useful labors. It is easy to trace the relation of this to his other work, particularly to the novels. He once wrote to a friend, "The editing a new edition of Somers's Tracts some years ago made me wonderfully well acquainted with the little traits which marked parties and characters in the seventeenth century, and the embodying them is really an amusing task."[4] Among the works which he edited in this way the number of historical memoirs is noticeable. After the volume that has been mentioned as the first, he prepared another book of Memoirs of the Great Civil War; and we find in the list a Secret History of the Court of James I., Memoirs of the Reign of King Charles I., Count Grammont's Memoirs of the Court of Charles II., A History of Queen Elizabeth's Favourites, etc. Such books as these, besides furnishing material for his novels, led Scott to acquire a mass of information that enabled him to perform with great facility and with admirable results whatever editorial work he might choose to undertake.

These labors Scott always considered as trifles to be dispatched in the odd moments of his time, but the great edition of Dryden's Complete Works, which he began to prepare soon after the Minstrelsy appeared, was more important. This, next to the Minstrelsy, was probably the most notable of all Scott's editorial enterprises. It was published in eighteen volumes in 1808, the year in which Marmion also appeared. When the poet was reproached by one of his friends for not working more steadily at his vocation, he replied, "The public, with many other properties of spoiled children, has all their eagerness after novelty, and were I to dedicate my time entirely to poetry they would soon tire of me. I must therefore, I fear, continue to edit a little."[5] His interest in scholarly pursuits appears even in his first attempt at writing prose fiction, since Joseph Strutt's unfinished romance, Queenhoo Hall, for which Scott wrote a conclusion, is of consequence only on account of the antiquarian learning which it exhibits.

Having become seriously alarmed over the political influence of the Edinburgh Review, Scott was active in forwarding plans for starting a strong rival periodical in London, and 1809 saw the establishment of the Quarterly Review. By that time he had done a considerable amount of work in practically every kind except the novel, and he was recognized as a most efficient assistant and adviser in any such enterprise as the promoters of the Quarterly were undertaking. Moreover, his own writings were prominent among the books which supplied material for the reviewer. He worked hard for the first volume. But after that year he wrote little for the Quarterly until 1818, and again little until after Lockhart became editor in 1825. From that time until 1831 he was an occasional contributor.

1814 was the year of Waverley. Before that the poems had been appearing in rapid succession, and Scott had been busy with the Works of Swift, which came out also in 1814. The thirteen volumes of the edition of Somers' Tracts, already mentioned, and several smaller books, bore further witness to his editorial energy. The last of the long poems was published in 1815, about the same time with Guy Mannering, the second novel, and after that the novels continued to appear with that rapidity which constitutes one of the chief facts of Scott's literary career. For a few years after this period he did comparatively little in the way of editorial work, but his odd moments were occupied in writing about history, travels, and antiquities.[6]

In 1820 Scott wrote the Lives of the Novelists, which appeared the next year in Ballantyne's Novelists' Library. By this time he had begun, with Ivanhoe, to strike out from the Scottish field in which all his first novels had been placed. The martial pomp prominent in this novel reflects the eager interest with which he was at that time following his son's opening career in the army; just as Marmion, written by the young quartermaster of the Edinburgh Light Horse, also expresses the military ardor which was so natural to Scott, and which reminds us of his remark that in those days a regiment of dragoons was tramping through his head day and night. Probably we might trace many a reason for his literary preoccupations at special times besides those that he has himself commented upon. In the case of the critical work, however, the matter was usually determined for him by circumstances of a much less intimate sort, such as the appeal of an editor or the appearance of a book which excited his special interest.

When Scott was obliged to make as much money as possible he wrote novels and histories rather than criticism. His Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, which appeared in nine volumes in 1827, enabled him to make the first large payment on the debts that had fallen upon him in the financial crash of the preceding year, and the Tales of a Grandfather were among the most successful of his later books. His critical biographies and many of his other essays were brought together for the first time in 1827, and issued under the title of Miscellaneous Prose Works. The world of books was making his life weary with its importunate demands in those years when he was writing to pay his debts, and it is pleasant to see that some of his later reviews discussed matters that were not less dear to his heart because they were not literary. The articles on fishing, on ornamental gardening, on planting waste lands, remind us of the observation he once made, that his oaks would outlast his laurels.

By this time the "Author of Waverley" was no longer the "unknown." His business complications compelled him to give his name to the novels, and with the loss of a certain kind of privacy he gained the freedom of which later he made such fortunate use in annotating his own works. From the beginning of 1828 until the end of his life in 1832, Scott was engaged, in the intervals of other occupations, in writing these introductions and notes for his novels, for an edition which he always called the Opus Magnum. This was a pleasant task, charmingly done. Indeed we may call it the last of those great editorial labors by which Scott's fame might live unsupported by anything else. First came the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, then the editions of Dryden and Swift. Next we may count the Lives of the Novelists, even in the fragmentary state in which the failure of the Novelists' Library left them; and finally the Opus Magnum. When, in addition, we remember the mass of his critical work written for periodicals, and the number of minor volumes he edited, it becomes evident that a study of Scott which disregards this part of his work can present only a one-sided view of his achievement. And the qualities of his abundant criticism, especially its large fresh sanity, seem to make it worthy of closer analysis than it usually receives, not only because it helps to reveal Scott's genius, but also on account of the historical and ethical importance which always attaches to the ideals, literary and other, of a noble man and a great writer.



Wide reading Scott's first qualification—Scott the antiquary—Character of his interest in history—His imagination—His knowledge of practical affairs—Common-sense in criticism—Cheerfulness, good-humor, and optimism—General aspect of Scott's critical work.

Wide and appreciative reading was Scott's first qualification for critical work. A memory that retained an incredible amount of what he read was the second. One of the severest censures he ever expressed was in regard to Godwin, who, he thought, undertook to do scholarly work without adequate equipment. "We would advise him," Scott said in his review of Godwin's Life of Chaucer, "in future to read before he writes, and not merely while he is writing." Scott himself had accumulated a store of literary materials, and he used them according to the dictates of a temperament which had vivid interests on many sides.

We may distinguish three points of view which were habitual to Scott, and which determined the direction of his creative work, as well as the tone of his criticism. These were—as all the world knows—the historical, the romantic, the practical.

He was, as he often chose to call himself, an antiquary; he felt the appeal of all that was old and curious. But he was much more than that. The typical antiquary has his mind so thoroughly devoted to the past that the present seems remote to him. The sheer intellectual capacity of such a man as Scott might be enough to save him from such a limitation, for he could give to the past as much attention as an ordinary man could muster, and still have interest for contemporary affairs; but his capacity was not all that saved Scott. He viewed the past always as filled with living men, whose chief occupation was to think and feel rather than to provide towers and armor for the delectation of future antiquaries.[7] A sympathetic student of his work has said, "There is ... throughout the poetry of this author, even when he leads us to the remotest wildernesses and the most desolate monuments of antiquity, a constant reference to the feelings of man in his social condition."[8] The past, to the author of Kenilworth, was only the far end of the present, and he believed that the most useful result of the study of history is a comprehension of the real quality of one's own period and a wisdom in the conduct of present day affairs.[9]

The favorite pursuits of Scott's youth indicate that his characteristic taste showed itself early; indeed it is said that he retained his boyish traits more completely than most people do. We can trace much of his love of the past to the family traditions which made the adventurous life of his ancestors vividly real to him. The annals of the Scotts were his earliest study, and he developed such an affection for his freebooting grandsires that in his manhood he confessed to an unconquerable liking for the robbers and captains of banditti of his romances, characters who could not be prevented from usurping the place of the heroes. "I was always a willing listener to tales of broil and battle and hubbub of every kind," he wrote in later life, "and now I look back upon it, I think what a godsend I must have been while a boy to the old Trojans of 1745, nay 1715, who used to frequent my father's house, and who knew as little as I did for what market I was laying up the raw materials of their oft-told tales."[10] What attracted him in his boyhood, and what continued to attract him, was the picturesque incident, the color of the past, the mere look of its varied activity. The philosophy of history was gradually revealed to him, however, and his generalizing faculty found congenial employment in tracing out the relation of men to movements, of national impulses to world history. But however much he might exercise his analytical powers, history was never abstract to him, nor did it require an effort for him to conjure up scenes of the past. An acquaintance with the stores of early literature served to give him the spirit of remote times as well as to feed his literary tastes. On this side he had an ample equipment for critical work, conditioned, of course, by the other qualities of his mind, which determined how the equipment should be used.

That Scott was not a dull digger in heaps of ancient lore was owing to his imaginative power,—the second of the qualities which we have distinguished as dominating his literary temperament. "I can see as many castles in the clouds as any man," he testified.[11] A recent writer has said that Scott had more than any other man that ever lived a sense of the romantic, and adds that his was that true romance which "lies not upon the outside of life, but absolutely in the centre of it."[12] The situations and the very objects that he described have the power of stirring the romantic spirit in his readers because he was alive to the glamour surrounding anything which has for generations been connected with human thoughts and emotions. The subjectivity which was so prominent an element in the romanticism of Shelley, Keats, and Byron, does not appear in Scott's work. Nor was his sense of the mystery of things so subtle as that of Coleridge. But Scott, rather than Coleridge, was the interpreter to his age of the romantic spirit, for the ordinary person likes his wonders so tangible that he may know definitely the point at which they impinge upon his consciousness. In Scott's work the point of contact is made clear: the author brings his atmosphere not from another world but from the past, and with all its strangeness it has no unearthly quality. In general the romance of his nature is rather taken for granted than insisted on, for there are the poems and the novels to bear witness to that side of his temperament; and the surprising thing is that such an author was a business man, a large landowner, an industrious lawyer.[13]

Scott's imaginative sense, which clothed in fine fancies any incident or scene presented, however nakedly, to his view, accounts in part for his notorious tendency to overrate the work of other writers, especially those who wrote stories in any form. This explanation was hinted at by Sir Walter himself, and formulated by Lockhart; it seems a fairly reasonable way of accounting for a trait that at first appears to indicate only a foolish excess of good-nature. This rich and active imagination, which Scott brought to bear on everything he read, perhaps explains also his habit of paying little attention to carefully worked out details, and of laying almost exclusive emphasis upon main outlines. When he was writing his Life of Napoleon, he said in his Journal: "Better a superficial book which brings well and strikingly together the known and acknowledged facts, than a dull boring narrative, pausing to see further into a mill-stone at every moment than the nature of the mill-stone admits."[14] Probably his high gift of imagination made him a little impatient with the remoter reaches of the analytic faculties. Any sustained exercise of the pure reason was outside his province, reasonable as he was in everyday affairs. He preferred to consider facts, and to theorize only so far as was necessary to establish comfortable relations between the facts,—never to the extent of trying to look into the center of a mill-stone. It was not unusual for him to make very acute observations in the spheres of ethics, economics, and psychology, and to use them in explaining any situation which might seem to require their assistance; but these remarks were brief and incidental, and bore a very definite relation to the concrete ideas they were meant to illustrate.

Scott was a business man as well as an antiquary and a poet. Mr. Palgrave thought Lockhart went too far in creating the impression that Scott could detach his mind from the world of imagination and apply its full force to practical affairs.[15] Yet the oversight of lands and accounts and of all ordinary matters was so congenial to him, and his practical activities were on the whole conducted with so much spirit and capability, that after emphasizing his preoccupation with the poetic aspects of the life of his ancestors, we must turn immediately about and lay stress upon his keen judgment in everyday affairs. To a school-boy poet he once wrote: "I would ... caution you against an enthusiasm which, while it argues an excellent disposition and a feeling heart, requires to be watched and restrained, though not repressed. It is apt, if too much indulged, to engender a fastidious contempt for the ordinary business of the world, and gradually to render us unfit for the exercise of the useful and domestic virtues which depend greatly upon our not exalting our feelings above the temper of well-ordered and well-educated society."[16] He phrased the same matter differently when he said: "'I'd rather be a kitten and cry, Mew!' than write the best poetry in the world on condition of laying aside common-sense in the ordinary transactions and business of the world."[17] "He thought," said Lockhart, "that to spend some fair portion of every day in any matter-of-fact occupation is good for the higher faculties themselves in the upshot."[18] Whether or not we consider this the ideal theory of life for a poet, we find it reasonable to suppose that a critic will be the better critic if he preserve some balance between matter-of-fact occupation and the exercise of his higher faculties. Sir Walter's maxim applies well to himself at least, and an analysis of his powers as a critic derives some light from it.

The thing that is waiting to be said is of course that his criticism is distinguished by common-sense. Whether common-sense should really predominate in criticism might perhaps be debated; the quality indicates, indeed, not only the excellence but also the limitations of his method. For example, Scott was rather too much given to accepting popular favor as the test of merit in literary work, and though the clamorously eager reception of his own books was never able to raise his self-esteem to a very high pitch, it seems to have been the only thing that induced him to respect his powers in anything like an appreciative way.[19] His instinct and his judgment agreed in urging him to avoid being a man of "mere theory,"[20] and he sought always to test opinions by practical standards.

More or less connected with his good sense are other qualities which also had their effect upon his critical work,—his cheerfulness, his sweet temper and human sympathy, his modesty, his humor, his independence of spirit, and his enthusiastic delight in literature. That his cheerfulness was a matter of temperament we cannot doubt, but it was also founded on principle. He had remarkable power of self-control.[21] His opinion that it is a man's duty to live a happy life appears rather quaintly in the sermonizing with which he felt called upon to temper the admiration expressed in his articles on Childe Harold, and it is implicit in many of his biographical studies. His own amiability of course influenced all his work. Satire he considered objectionable, "a woman's fault,"[22] as he once called it; though he did not feel himself "altogether disqualified for it by nature."[23] "I have refrained, as much as human frailty will permit, from all satirical composition,"[24] he said. For satire he seems to have substituted that kind of "serious banter, a style hovering between affected gravity and satirical slyness," which has been pointed out as characteristic of him.[25] Washington Irving noticed a similar tone in all his familiar conversations about local traditions and superstitions.[26]

He was really optimistic, except on some political questions. In his Lives of the Novelists he shows that he thought manners and morals had improved in the previous hundred years; and none of his reviews exhibits the feeling so common among men of letters in all ages, that their own times are intellectually degenerate. It is true that he looked back to the days of Blair, Hume, Adam Smith, Robertson, and Ferguson, as the "golden days of Edinburgh,"[27] but those golden days were no farther away than his own boyhood, and he had felt the exhilaration of the stimulating society which he praised. One of his contemporaries spoke of Scott's own works as throwing "a literary splendour over his native city";[28] and George Ticknor said of him, "He is indeed the lord of the ascendant now in Edinburgh, and well deserves to be, for I look upon him to be quite as remarkable in intercourse and conversation, as he is in any of his writings, even in his novels."[29] But he could hardly be expected to perceive the luster surrounding his own personality, and this one instance of regret for former days counts little against the abundant evidence that he thought the world was improving. Yet of all his contemporaries he was probably the one who looked back at the past with the greatest interest. The impression made by the author of Waverley upon the mind of a young enthusiast of his own time is too delightful to pass over without quotation. "He has no eccentric sympathies or antipathies"; wrote J.L. Adolphus, "no maudlin philanthropy or impertinent cynicism; no nondescript hobby-horse; and with all his matchless energy and originality of mind, he is content to admire popular books, and enjoy popular pleasures; to cherish those opinions which experience has sanctioned; to reverence those institutions which antiquity has hallowed; and to enjoy, admire, cherish, and reverence all these with the same plainness, simplicity, and sincerity as our ancestors did of old."[30]

By temperament, then, Scott was enthusiastic over the past and cheerful in regard to his own day; he was imaginative, practical, genial; and these traits must be taken into account in judging his critical writings. These and other qualities may be deduced from the most superficial study of his creative work. The mere bulk of that work bears witness to two things: first that Scott was primarily a creative writer; again, that he was of those who write much rather than minutely. It is obvious that to attack details would be easy. And since he was only secondarily a critic, it is natural that his critical opinions should not have been erected into any system. But while they are essentially desultory, they are the ideas of a man whose information and enthusiasm extended through a wide range of studies; and they are rendered impressive by the abundance, variety, and energy, which mark them as characteristic of Scott.




Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border

Scott's early interest in ballads—Casual origin of the Minstrelsy—Importance of the book in Scott's career—Plan of the book—Mediaeval scholarship of Scott's time—His theory as to the origin of ballads and their deterioration—His attitude toward the work of previous editors—His method of forming texts—Kinds of changes he made—His qualifications for emending old poetry—Modern imitations of the ballad included in the Minstrelsy—Remarks on the ballad style—Impossibility of a scientific treatment of folk-poetry in Scott's time—Real importance of the Minstrelsy.

We think of the Border Minstrelsy as the first work which resulted from the preparation of Scott's whole youth, between the days when he insisted on shouting the lines of Hardyknute into the ears of the irate clergyman making a parish call, and the time when he and his equally ardent friends gathered their ballads from the lips of old women among the hills. But we have seen that the inspiration for his first attempts at writing poetry came only indirectly from the ballads of his own country. We learn from the introduction to the third part of the Minstrelsy that some of the young men of Scott's circle in Edinburgh were stimulated by what the novelist, Henry Mackenzie, told them of the beauties of German literature, to form a class for the study of that language. This was when Scott was twenty-one, but it was still four years before he found himself writing those translations which mark the sufficiently modest beginning of his literary career. His enthusiasm for German literature was not at first tempered by any critical discrimination, if we may judge from the opinions of one or two of his friends who labored to point out to him the extravagance and false sentiment which he was too ready to admire along with the real genius of some of his models.[31] Apparently their efforts were useful, for in a review written in 1806 we find Scott, in a remark on Buerger, referring to "the taste for outrageous sensibility, which disgraces most German poetry."[32] His special interest in the Germans was an early mood which seems not to have returned. After the process of translation had discovered to him his verse-making faculty, he naturally passed on to the writing of original poems, and circumstances of a half accidental sort determined that the Scottish ballads which he had always loved should absorb his attention for the next two or three years.

The publication of a book of ballads was first suggested by Scott as an opportunity for his friend Ballantyne to exhibit his skill as a printer and so increase his business. "I have been for years collecting old Border ballads," Scott remarked, "and I think I could with little trouble put together such a selection from them as might make a neat little volume to sell for four or five shillings."[33] From this casual proposition resulted The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, published in three volumes in 1802-3 and often revised and reissued during the editor's lifetime.

This book and the prefaces to his own novels are likely to be thought of first when Scott is spoken of as a critic. The connection between the Minstrelsy and the novels has often been pointed out, ever since the day of the contemporary who, on reading the ballads with their introductions, exclaimed that in that book were the elements of a hundred historical romances.[34] The interest of the earlier work is undoubtedly multiplied by the associations in the light of which we read it—associations connected with the editor's whole experience as an author, from the Lay of the Last Minstrel to Castle Dangerous.

Important as the Minstrelsy is from the point of view of literary criticism, the material of its introductions is chiefly historical. The introduction in the original edition gives an account of life on the Border in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the outlines of many of the events that stimulated ballad-making, and an analysis of the temper of the Marchmen among whom this kind of poetry flourished; then by special introductions and notes to the poems an attempt is made to explain both the incidents on which they seem to have been founded, and parallel cases that appear in tradition or record. Some enthusiastic comment is included, of the kind that was so natural to Scott, on the effect of ballad poetry upon a spirited and warlike people. The writer continues: "But it is not the Editor's present intention to enter upon a history of Border poetry; a subject of great difficulty, and which the extent of his information does not as yet permit him to engage in." It was, in fact, nearly thirty years later[35] that Scott wrote the Remarks on Popular Poetry which since that date have formed an introduction to the book, as well as the essay, On Imitations of the Ancient Ballad, which at present precedes the third part. The more purely literary side of the editor's duty—leaving out of account the modern poems written by Scott and others—was exhibited chiefly in the construction of texts, a matter of which I shall speak later, after considering his views of the origin and character of folk-poetry in general.

But first we may recall the fact that Scott was following a fairly well established vogue in giving scholarly attention to ancient popular poetry. A revival of interest in the study of mediaeval literature had been stimulated in England by the publication of Percy's Reliques in 1765 and Warton's History of English Poetry in 1774. In 1800 there were enough well-known antiquaries to keep Scott from being in any sense lonely. Among them Joseph Ritson[36] was the most learned, but he was crotchety in the extreme; and while his notions as to research were in advance of his time, his controversial style resembled that of the seventeenth century. George Ellis,[37] on the other hand, was distinguished by an eighteenth-century urbanity, and his combination of learning and good taste fitted him to influence a broader public than that of specialists. At the same time he was a delightful and stimulating friend to other scholars. Southey was becoming known as an authority on the history and literature of the Spanish peninsula. A review in the Quarterly a dozen years later mentions these three,—Ellis, Scott, and Southey,—as "good men and true" to serve as guides in the remote realms of literature.[38] Ellis's friend, John Hookham Frere, had great abilities but was an incurable dillettante. Scott particularly admired a Middle-English version of The Battle of Brunanburgh which Frere wrote in his school-boy days, and considered him an authoritative critic of mediaeval English poetry. Robert Surtees[39] and Francis Douce[40] were antiquaries of some importance, and both, like all the others named, were friends of Scott. Mr. Herford calls this period a day of "Specimens" and extracts: "Mediaeval romance was studied in Ellis's Specimens," he says, "the Elizabethan drama in Lamb's, literary history at large in D'Israeli's gently garrulous compilations of its 'quarrels,' 'amenities,' 'calamities,' and 'curiosities.'"[41] But the scholarship of the time on the whole is worthy of respect. In the case of ballads and romances notable work had been done before Scott entered the field,[42] and he and his contemporaries were carrying out the promise of the half century before them—continuing the work that Percy and Warton had begun.

Among the problems connected with ballad study, that which arises first is naturally the question of origins. Scott made no attempt to formulate a theory different in any main element from that which was held by his predecessors. He agreed with Percy that ballads were composed and sung by minstrels, and based his discussion on the materials brought forward by Percy and Ritson for use in their great controversy.[43] Ritson himself never doubted that ballads were composed and sung by individual authors, though he might refuse to call them minstrels. The idea of communal authorship, which Jacob Grimm was to suggest only half a dozen years after the first edition of the Minstrelsy, would doubtless have been rejected by Scott, even if he had considered it. But we have no evidence that he did so. Probably he did not, as he never felt the need of a new theory.[44]

Scott's opinion in regard to the transmission of ballads followed naturally from his theory of their origin. His aristocratic instincts perhaps helped to determine his belief that ballads were composed by gifted minstrels, and that they had deteriorated in the process of being handed down by recitation. He called tradition "a sort of perverted alchymy which converts gold into lead." "All that is abstractedly poetical," he said, "all that is above the comprehension of the merest peasant, is apt to escape in frequent repetition; and the lacunae thus created are filled up either by lines from other ditties or from the mother wit of the reciter or singer. The injury, in either case, is obvious and irreparable."[45] From this point of view Scott considered that the ballads were only getting their rights when a skilful hand gave them such a retouching as should enable them to appear in something of what he called their original vigor.[46]

We may learn what qualities he considered necessary for an editor in this field, from the latter part of his Remarks on Popular Poetry, in which he discusses previous attempts to collect English and Scottish ballads. Of Percy he speaks in the highest terms, here and elsewhere. We have seen that he felt a strong sympathy with Percy's desire to dress up the ballads and make them as attractive to the public as their intrinsic charms render them to their friends. He did not of course realize the extent to which the Bishop reworked his materials, as the publication of the folio manuscript has since revealed it, and Ritson's captious remarks on the subject were naturally discounted on the score of their ill-temper. But it is not to be doubted that Ritson had an appreciable effect on Scott's attitude, by stirring him up to some comprehension of the things that might be said in favor even of dull accuracy. Ritson's collections are cited in their place, with a tribute to the extreme fidelity of their editor. It is a pity that this accurate scholar could not have had a sufficient amount of literary taste, to say nothing of good manners, to inspire others with a fuller trust in his method. Scott expresses impatience with him for seeming to prefer the less effective text in many instances, "as if a poem was not more likely to be deteriorated than improved by passing through the mouths of many reciters."[47] He admitted, however, that it was not in his own period necessary to rework the ballads as much as Bishop Percy had done, since the Reliques had already created an audience for popular poetry. His purpose evidently was to steer a middle course between such graceful but sophisticated versions as were given in the Reliques, and the exact transcript of everything to be gathered from tradition, whether interesting or not, that was attempted by Ritson. In his later revisions he gave way more than at first to his natural impulse in favor of the added graces which he could supply.[48]

It is easy to see how his own contributions of word and phrase might slip in, since his avowed method was to collate the different texts secured from manuscripts or recitation or both, and so to give what to his mind was the worthiest version. Believing that the ballads had been composed by men not unlike himself, he assumed, in the manner well known to classical text-critics, that his familiarity with the conditions of the ancient social order gave him some license for changing here and there a word or a line. In determining which stanzas or lines to choose, when choice was possible, he was guided by his antiquarian knowledge and by the general principle of selecting the most poetic rendering among those at his command. This was his way of showing his respect for the minstrel bards of whom he was fond of considering himself a successor.

So far it is perfectly easy to take his point of view. But it is more difficult to reconcile his practice with his professions. We find this declaration in the forefront of the book: "No liberties have been taken either with the recited or written copies of these ballads, farther than that, where they disagreed, which is by no means unusual, the editor, in justice to the author, has uniformly preserved what seemed to him the best or most poetical rendering of the passage.... Some arrangement was also occasionally necessary to recover the rhyme, which was often, by the ignorance of the reciters, transposed or thrown into the middle of the line. With these freedoms, which were essentially necessary to remove obvious corruptions and fit the ballads for the press, the editor presents them to the public, under the complete assurance that they carry with them the most indisputable marks of their authenticity."[49] In the face of this fair announcement we are surprised, to say the least, at the number of lines and stanzas which scholars have discovered to be of Scott's own composition.[50]

Occasionally his notes give some slight indication of his method of treatment, as for instance this, on The Dowie Dens of Yarrow: "The editor found it easy to collect a variety of copies; but very difficult indeed to select from them such a collated edition as might in any degree suit the taste of 'these more light and giddy-paced times.'" Notes on some others of the ballads say that "a few conjectural emendations have been found necessary," but no one of these remarks would seem really ingenuous in a modern scholar when we consider how far the "conjectural emendations" extended. Moreover, changes were often made without the slightest clue in introduction or note.[51]

The case was complicated for Scott by the poetical tastes of his assistants. Leyden[52] was apparently quite capable of taking down a ballad from recitation in such a way as to produce a more finished poem than one would expect a traditional ballad to be. And Hogg,[53] who supplied several ballads from the recitations of his mother and other old people, was probably still less strict. "Sure no man," he is quoted as having said, "will think an old song the worse of being somewhat harmonious."[54] Yet it is easy to see that Scott's friends might have acted differently if his own practice had favored absolute fidelity to the texts.

A remark in Scott's review of Evans's Old Ballads seems a pretty definite arraignment of his own procedure. "It may be asked by the severer antiquary of the present day, why an editor, thinking it necessary to introduce such alterations in order to bring forth a new, beautiful, and interesting sense from a meagre or corrupted original, did not in good faith to his readers acquaint them with the liberties he had taken and make them judge whether in so doing he transgressed his limits. We answer that unquestionably such would be the express duty of a modern editor, but such were not the rules of the service when Dr. Percy first opened the campaign."[55]

One wonders whether the "rules of the service" did not in Scott's opinion occasionally permit a little wilful mystification. The case of Kinmont Willie tempts one to such an explanation. Besides the capital instance of his anonymity as regards the novels, Scott several times seemed to amuse himself in perplexing the public. There was the case of the Bridal of Triermain, which he tried by means of various careful devices to pass off as the work of a friend. But perhaps the best example appears in connection with The Fortunes of Nigel. He first designed the material of that book for a series of "private letters" purporting to have been written in the reign of James I., but when he had finally complied with the advice of his friends and used it for a novel, he said to Lockhart, "You were all quite right: if the letters had passed for genuine, they would have found favour only with a few musty antiquaries."[56] This suggests comparison with the conduct of his friend Robert Surtees, who palmed off upon him three whole ballads of his own and got them inserted in the Minstrelsy as ancient, with a plausible tale concerning the circumstances of their recovery. Surtees, one is interested to observe, never dared tell Scott the truth, and Scott always accepted the ballads as genuine—a lack of discernment rather compromising in an editor, though one may perhaps excuse him on the ground of his confidence in his brother antiquary.[57]

In one direction Scott seems to have been more conscientious than we might be inclined to suppose after seeing the discrepancy between the standard of exactness that his own statements lead us to expect and the results that actually appear. I believe that he intended to preserve the manuscript texts just as he received them, and that he would have wished to have them given to the public when the public was prepared to want them. To support this theory we have first the fact that most of his own emendations have been traced by means of the manuscripts which he used.[58] It is significant that in speaking of a poet who had altered a manuscript to suit a revised reading he grew indignant over that fault far more than over the mere change in the published version. The Raid of the Reidswire, he said, "first appeared in Allan Ramsay's Evergreen, but some liberties have been taken by him in transcribing it; and, what is altogether unpardonable, the manuscript, which is itself rather inaccurate, has been interpolated to favour his readings; of which there remain obvious marks."[59] Scott said also that the time had come for the publication of Percy's folio manuscript; though we must believe that he would not have wished to see the manuscript published until the ballads had become familiar to the world in what he considered a beautified form.

The changes Scott made were usually in style rather than in substance. Often he merely substituted an archaic word for a modern one; but often whole lines and longer passages offered temptations which the poet in him could not resist, and he "improved" lavishly. For example, we have his note on Earl Richard—"The best verses are here selected from both copies, and some trivial alterations have been adopted from tradition,"—with the comment by Mr. Henderson—"The emendations of Scott are so many, and the majority relate so entirely to style, that no mere tradition could have supplied them."[60] His versions are in general characterized by a smoothness and precision of meter which to the student of ballads is very suspicious. But he seems occasionally to have altered or supplied incidents as well as phrases. The historical event which furnished the purpose for the expedition of Sir Patrick Spens seems to have been introduced into the ballad by Scott, and Mr. Henderson thinks that "when the deeds of his ancestors were concerned it was impossible for him to resist the temptation to employ some of his own minstrel art on their behalf."[61]

Certainly Scott's qualifications for evolving true poetry out of the crude fragments that sometimes served as a basis formed a very unusual combination when they were united with his knowledge of early history and literature. He had such confidence in his own powers in this direction that he at one time intended to write a series of imitations of Scottish poets of different periods, from Thomas the Rhymer down, and thus to exhibit changes in language as well as variations in literary style.[62] He evidently thought that the ballads as they appeared in the Minstrelsy were truer to their originals than were the copies he was able to procure from recitation. Lockhart gives him precisely the kind of praise he would have desired, in saying, "From among a hundred corruptions he seized with instinctive tact the primitive diction and imagery."[63]

It is evident that Scott's public did not wish him to be more careful than he was in discriminating between new and old matter. One of his moments of strict veracity seems even to have occasioned some annoyance to the writer of the Edinburgh article, who apparently preferred to believe in the antiquity of The Flowers of the Forest rather than to learn that "the most positive evidence" proved its modern origin. The editor's introduction to the poem seems perfectly clear; he names his authority and quotes two verses which are ancient;[64] but the reviewer says with a perverse irritability: "Mr. Scott would have done well to tell us how much he deems ancient, and to give us the 'positive evidence' that convinced him the whole was not so."[65] This review was, however, for the most part favorable.

The fact that Scott included modern imitations of the ballad in his book is another indication that his attitude was like that of his predecessors.[66] Doubtless these helped the Minstrelsy to sell, but a more modern taste would choose to put them in a place by themselves, not in a collection of old ballads. An essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad was written, as were the Remarks on Popular Poetry, for the 1833 edition. It is chiefly interesting for its autobiographical matter, though it also contains criticisms of Burns and other writers of ballad poetry—"a species of literary labour which the author has himself pursued with some success."[67] Scott's statement that the ballad style was very popular at the time he began to write, and that he followed the prevailing fashion, was one of many examples of his modesty, taken in connection with the remark in another part of the essay to the effect that this style "had much to recommend it, especially as it presented considerable facilities to those who wished at as little exertion or trouble as possible to attain for themselves a certain degree of literary reputation." To complete the comparison, however, we need an observation found in one of Scott's reviews, on the spurious ballad poetry, full of false sentiment, sometimes written in the eighteenth century. "It is the very last refuge of those who can do nothing better in the shape of verse; and a man of genius should disdain to invade the province of these dawdling rhymers."[68]

Scott's criticism of ballad style probably suffered from his interest in modern imitations of ballads. Perhaps also the real quality of ancient popular poetry was a little obscured for him by his belief that it was written by professional or semi-professional poets. If he wrote Kinmont Willie, he succeeded in catching the right tone better than anyone since him has been able to do, but even in this poem there are turns of phrase that remind one of the Lay of the Last Minstrel rather than of the true folk-song.[69] After his first attempts at versifying he received from William Taylor, of Norwich, who had made an earlier translation of Buerger's Lenore, a letter of hearty praise intermingled with very sensible remarks about the tendency in some parts of Scott's Chase toward too great elaboration.[70] Scott's answer was as follows: "I do not ... think quite so severely of the Darwinian style, as to deem it utterly inconsistent with the ballad, which, at least to judge from the examples left us by antiquity, admits in some cases of a considerable degree of decoration. Still, however, I do most sincerely agree with you, that this may be very easily overdone, and I am far from asserting that this may not be in some degree my own case; but there is scarcely so nice a line to distinguish, as that which divides true simplicity from flatness and Sternholdianism (if I may be allowed to coin the word), and therefore it is not surprising, that in endeavouring to avoid the latter, so young and inexperienced a rhymer as myself should sometimes have deviated also from the former."[71] This was Scott's earliest stage as a man of letters, and he evidently learned more about ballads later. But there appears in much of his criticism on the subject a limitation which may be assigned partly to his time, and partly, no doubt, to the fact that he was a poet and could not forget all the sophistications of his art.

The true nature of ballad poetry could hardly be understood until scholars had investigated the structure of primitive society in a way that Scott's contemporaries were not at all prepared to do. Even Scott, with all his intelligent interest in bygone institutions and modes of expression, could hardly have foreseen the anthropological researches which the problem of literary origins has since demanded. We do not find, then, that Scott's work on ballads was marked by any special originality in point of view or method. The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border was a notable book because it did better what other men had tried to do, and especially because of the charm and effectiveness of its historical comment. It was more trustworthy than Percy's collection and more graceful than Ritson's; it was richer than other books of the kind in what people cared to have when they wanted ballads, and yet was not, for its time, over-sophisticated. Scott's conclusions cannot now be accepted without question, but the illustrations with which he sets them forth and the wide reading and sincere love of folk-poetry which evidently lie behind them produce a pleasant effect of ripe and reasonable judgment. The admirable qualities of the book were at once recognized by competent critics, and it will always be studied with enthusiasm by scholars as well as by the uncritical lover of ballads.

Studies in the Romances

Scott's theory as to the connection between ballads and romances—His early fondness for romances—His acquaintance with Romance languages—His work on the Sir Tristrem—Value of his edition—Special quality of Scott's interest in the Middle Ages—General theories expressed in the body of his work on romances—His type of scholarship.

Ballads and romances are so closely related that Scott's early and lasting interest in the one form naturally grew out of his interest in the other. He held the theory that "the romantic ballads of later times are for the most part abridgments of the ancient metrical romances, narrated in a smoother stanza and more modern language."[72] It is not surprising, then, that a considerable body of his critical work has to do with the subject of mediaeval romance.

Throughout his boyhood Scott read all the fairy tales, eastern stories, and romances of knight-errantry that fell in his way. When he was about thirteen, he and a young friend used to spend hours reading together such authors as Spenser, Ariosto, and Boiardo.[73] He remembered the poems so well that weeks or months afterwards he could repeat whole pages that had particularly impressed him. Somewhat later the two boys improvised similar stories to recite to each other, Scott being the one who proposed the plan and the more successful in carrying it out. With this same friend he studied Italian and began to read the Italian poets in the original. In his autobiography he says:[74] "I had previously renewed and extended my knowledge of the French language, from the same principle of romantic research. Tressan's romances, the Bibliotheque Bleue, and Bibliotheque de Romans, were already familiar to me, and I now acquired similar intimacy with the works of Dante, Boiardo, Pulci, and other eminent Italian authors." Writing some years later he remarked: "I was once the most enormous devourer of the Italian romantic poetry, which indeed is the only poetry of their country which I ever had much patience for; for after all that has been said of Petrarch and his school, I am always tempted to exclaim like honest Christopher Sly, 'Marvellous good matter, would it were done.' But with Charlemagne and his paladins I could dwell forever."[75] Scott learned languages easily, and he read Spanish with about as much facility as Italian. Don Quixote seems often to be the guide with whom he chooses to traverse the fields of romance.[76] In Scott's boyhood one of his teachers noticed that he could follow and enjoy the meaning of what he read in Latin better than many of his school-fellows who knew more about the language, and it was the same all through his life—he got what he wanted from foreign literatures with very little trouble.

Scott constantly refers to the work of Percy, Warton, Tressan,[77] Ritson, and Ellis, in the study of ancient romances, but in editing Sir Tristrem he made one part of the field his own, and became the authority whom he felt obliged to quote in the Essay on Romance.

Thomas the Rhymer of Erceldoune was at first an object of interest to Scott because of the ballad of True Thomas and the traditions concerning him that floated about the countryside. The "Rhymer's Glen" was afterwards a cherished possession of Scott's own on the Abbotsford estate. In the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh, of which Scott was in 1795 appointed a curator, was an important manuscript that contained among other metrical romances one professing to be a copy of that written by Thomas of Erceldoune on Sir Tristrem. From a careful piecing together of evidence furnished by this poem and by Robert of Brunne, with the assistance of certain legal documents which supplied dates, Scott built up about the old poet a theory that he elaborated in his edition of Sir Tristrem, published in 1804, and that continued to interest him vividly as long as he lived. It reappears in many of his critical writings[78] and also in the novels. In the Bride of Lammermoor Ravenswood goes to his death in compliance with the prophecy of Thomas quoted by the superstitious Caleb Balderstone. And in Castle Dangerous Bertram, who is unconvincing perhaps because he is endowed with the literary and antiquarian tastes of a Walter Scott himself, is actuated by an irrepressible desire to discover works of the Rhymer.

Scott's edition of Sir Tristrem gives—besides the text, introduction, and notes—a short conclusion written by himself in imitation of the original poet's style. Much of his theory has fallen. He considered this Sir Tristrem to be the first of the written versions of that story, a supposition that was not long tenable. The poem is now known to be based upon a French original, and many scholars think the name Erceldoune was arbitrarily inserted by the English translator; though Mr. McNeill, the latest editor, thinks there is a "reasonable probability" in favor of Scott's opinion that the author was the historic Thomas, who flourished in the thirteenth century. It is important, however, that Scott's scholarship in the matter passed muster at that time with such men as Ellis, who wrote the review in the Edinburgh, in which he said, "Upon the whole we are much disposed to adopt the general inferences drawn by Mr. Scott from his authorities, and have great pleasure in bearing testimony to the very uncommon diligence which he has evinced in collecting curious materials, and to the taste and sagacity with which he has employed them.... With regard to the notes, they contain an almost infinite variety of curious information, which had been hitherto unknown or unnoticed."[79] John Hookham Frere said, as quoted in a letter by Ellis, "I consider Sir Tristrem as by far the most interesting work that has as yet been published on the subject of our earliest poets."[80] Scott's opinions were in 1824 thought to be of sufficient importance, either from their own merits or on account of his later fame, to call forth a dissertation appended to the edition of Warton's History of English Poetry published in that year.

The first edition of the text swarms with errors, according to Koelbing,[81] a recent editor of the romance, and later editions are still very inaccurate.[82] It could hardly be expected that a man with Scott's habits of mind would edit a text accurately. But no one of that period was competent to construct a text that would seem satisfactory now. The study of English philology was not sufficiently developed in that direction, nor did scholars appreciate either the difficulties or the requirements of text-criticism. It is not to be wondered at that Scott failed, in this instance as well as afterwards in the case of the text of Dryden, to give a version that would stand the minute scrutiny of later scholarship.

His sympathies were rather with the scholar who opens the store of old poetry to the public, than with him who uses his erudition simply for the benefit of erudite people. The diction of the Middle Ages was interesting to him only as it reflected the customs and emotions of its period. He used the romances as authorities on ancient manners. The Chronicles of Froissart, because they give "a knowledge of mankind,"[83] were almost as much a hobby with him as Thomas the Rhymer, and in this case also he endows characters in his novels with his own fondness for the ancient writer.[84] The fruit of Scott's acquaintance with Froissart appears prominently in his essay on Chivalry and in various introductions to ballads in the Minstrelsy, as well as in the novels of chivalry. Scott at one time proposed to publish an edition of Malory, but abandoned the project on learning that Southey had the same thing in mind.[85]

The first periodical review Scott ever published was on the subject of the Amadis de Gaul, as translated by Southey and by Rose. The article is long and very carefully constructed, and expresses many ideas on the subject of the mediaeval romance in general that reappear again and again, particularly in the essay on Romance written in 1823 for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Among these general ideas that found frequent expression in his critical writings, one which in the light of his creative work becomes particularly interesting to us is his judgment on the distinctions between metrical and prose romances. He always preferred the poems, though he was so interested in the prose stories that he talked about them with much enthusiasm, and it sometimes seems as if he liked best the kind he happened to be analyzing at the moment.

Other matters that necessarily presented themselves when he was treating the subject of romance were the problem of the sources of narrative material, especially the perplexed question concerning the development of the Arthurian cycle, and the problem, already discussed in connection with ballads, concerning the character of minstrels. The minstrels reappear throughout Scott's studies in mediaeval literature, and were perhaps more interesting to him than any other part of the subject. Though, as we have seen, he formulated a compromise between the opposing opinions of Percy and Ritson, no one who reads the description of the Last Minstrel can doubt what was the picture that he preferred to carry in his mind.

His ideas on the subject of the origin and diffusion of narrative material were those of the sensible man trying to look at the matter in a reasonable way. Here again he adopted an attitude of compromise, in that he admitted the partial truth of various theories which he considered erroneous only in so far as any one of them was stretched beyond its proper compass. "Romance," he said, "was like a compound metal, derived from various mines, and in the different specimens of which one metal or other was alternately predominant."[86]

On the subject of the Arthurian cycle, the origin of which has never ceased to be matter for debate, he held essentially the opinions that the highest French authority has adopted that Celtic traditions were the foundation, and that the metrical romances preceded those in prose.[87] The important offices of French poets in giving form to the story he underestimated. When he said, "It is now completely proved, that the earliest and best French romances were composed for the meridian of the English court,"[88] he fell into the error that has not always been avoided by scholars who have since written on the subject, of feeling certitude about a proposition in which there is no certainty.

Scott's work on romances, though it does not always rise above commonplaceness, escapes the perfunctory quality of hack writing by virtue of his keen interest in the subject. He continued to like this prosaic kind of literary task even while he was writing novels with the most wonderful facility. We may judge not only by the fact that he continued to write reviews at intervals throughout his life, but by an explicit reference in his Journal: "I toiled manfully at the review till two o'clock, commencing at seven. I fear it will be uninteresting, but I like the muddling work of antiquities, and besides wish to record my sentiments with regard to the Gothic question."[89]

It is evident that Scott did not himself find the "muddling work of antiquities" dull, because he realized, emotionally as well as intellectually, the life of past times. This led him to form broader views than the ordinary student constructs out of his knowledge of special facts. An admirable illustration of this characteristic occurs in the essay on Romance, at the point where Scott is discussing the social position of the minstrels, in the light of what Percy and Ritson had said on the subject. He goes on: "In fact, neither of these excellent antiquaries has cast a general or philosophic glance on the necessary condition of a set of men, who were by profession the instruments of the pleasure of others during a period of society such as was presented in the Middle Ages." There follows a detailed and very interesting account of what the writer's own "philosophic glance" leads him to believe. The method is useful but dangerous; in the same essay occurs an amusing example of what philosophy may do when it is given free rein. Within two pages appear these conflicting statements: "The Metrical Romances, though in some instances sent to the press, were not very fit to be published in this form. The dull amplifications, which passed well enough in the course of a half-heard recitation, became intolerable when subjected to the eye." "The Metrical Romances in some instances indeed ran to great length, but were much exceeded in that particular by the folios which were written on the same or similar topics by their prose successors. Probably the latter judiciously reflected that a book which addresses itself only to the eyes may be laid aside when it becomes tiresome to the reader; whereas it may not always have been so easy to stop the minstrel in the full career of his metrical declamation." Flaws like this may be picked in the details of Scott's method, just as we may sometimes find fault with the lapses in his mediaeval scholarship. We do him no injustice when we say that aside from certain aspects of his work on the ballads and Sir Tristrem, his achievement was that of a popularizer of learning.

But if he lacked some of the authority of erudition, he escaped also the induration of pedantry. In writing of remote and dimly known periods, critics are perhaps most apt to show their defects of temper, and Scott often commented on the acerbity of spirit which such studies seem to induce. "Antiquaries," he said, "are apt to be both positive and polemical upon the very points which are least susceptible of proof, and which are least valuable if the truth could be ascertained; and which therefore we would gladly have seen handled with more diffidence and better temper in proportion to their uncertainty."[90] Of Ritson he says many times in one form or another that his "severe accuracy was connected with an unhappy eagerness and irritability of temper." Scott rode his own hobbies with an expansive cheerfulness that did not at all hinder them from being essentially serious.

Other Studies in Mediaeval Literature

Scott's attitude on the Ossianic controversy—His slight acquaintance with other northern literatures—Anglo-Saxon scholarship of the time—Character of his familiarity with Middle-English poetry—His opinions in regard to Chaucer—General importance of Scott's work on mediaeval literature.

Part of Scott's critical work on mediaeval literature falls outside the limits of the two divisions we have been considering—those of ballad and romance. He knew comparatively little about the early poetry of the northern nations, but at some points his knowledge of Scottish literature made the transition fairly easy to the literature of other Teutonic peoples. But he was especially bound to be interested in the Gaelic, for a Scotsman of his day could hardly avoid forming an opinion in regard to the Ossianic controversy then raging with what Scott thought must be its final violence. He did not understand the Gaelic language,[91] but he had a vivid interest in the Highlanders. The picturesque quality of their customs made it natural enough for him to use them in his novels, and by the "sheer force of genius," says Mr. Palgrave, who considers this Scott's greatest achievement, "he united the sympathies of two hostile races."[92]

As early as 1792 Scott had written for the Speculative Society an essay on the authenticity of Ossian's poems, and one of his articles for the Edinburgh Review in 1805 was on the same subject, occasioned by a couple of important documents which supported opposite sides, and which, he said, set the question finally at issue. This article represents Scott the critic in a typical attitude. The material was almost altogether furnished in the works which he was surveying.[93] His task was to distinguish the essential points of the problem, to state them plainly, and to weigh the evidence on each side. In this he shows notable clearness of thought, and also, throughout the rather long treatment of a complicated subject, great lucidity in arrangement and statement. He was led by this study to change the opinion which he had held in common with most of his countrymen, and to adopt the belief that the poems were essentially creations of Macpherson, with only the names and some parts of the story adopted from the Gaelic.[94] Other references to Ossian occur in Scott's writings, and it is evident in this case, as in many others, that an investigation of the matter in his early career, whether from original or from secondary sources, gave him material for allusion and comment throughout his life. For, as we have constant occasion to remark in studying Scott, with a very definite grasp of concrete fact he combined a vigorous generalizing power, and all the parts of his knowledge were actively related. He seems to have made little preparation for some of his most interesting reviews, but to have utilized in them the store gathered in his mind for other purposes.

Of the northern Teutonic languages Scott had slight knowledge, though he was always interested in the northern literatures. In a review of the Poems of William Herbert, of which the part most interesting to the reviewer consisted of translations from the Icelandic, Scott says: "We do not pretend any great knowledge of Norse; but we have so far traced the 'Runic rhyme' as to be sensible how much more easy it is to give a just translation of that poetry into English than into Latin." In the same review we find him saying, after a slight discussion of the style of Scaldic poetry, "The other translations are generally less interesting than those from the Icelandic. There is, however, one poem from the Danish, which I transcribe as an instance how very clearly the ancient popular ballad of that country corresponds with our own." So we see him drawing from all sources fuel for his favorite fire—the study of ballads. Very characteristically also Scott suggests that the author should extend his researches to the popular poetry of Scandinavia, "which we cannot help thinking is the real source of many of the tales of our minstrels."[95] It seems probable that Scott's acquaintance with northern literatures came partly through his ill-fated amanuensis, Henry Weber.[96] His acknowledgement in the introduction to Sir Tristrem would indicate this, taken together with other references by Scott to Weber's attainments.

Scott could hardly be called a student of Anglo-Saxon, though he was perhaps able to read the language. His remarks on the subject may, however, mean simply that he was familiar with early Middle English.[97] In his essay on Romance he referred to Sharon Turner's account of the story of Beowulf, but called the poem Caedmon, and made no correction when he added the later footnote in regard to Conybeare's fuller and more interesting analysis published in 1826.[98] The researches of these men indicate the state of Anglo-Saxon scholarship in England. Sharon Turner's very inaccurate description of Beowulf was published in 1805. Danish scholars made the first translations of the poem, but no one could give a really scholarly text or translation until the year after Scott died, when the first edition by J.M. Kemble appeared. There were students of the language, however, who were doing good work in feeling their way toward a comprehension of its special qualities. One of these was George Ellis. In his Specimens he published examples of Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English poetry, and his information was helpful in enlarging Scott's outlook. Scott's own knowledge of Anglo-Saxon literature did not amount to enough to be of importance by itself, but it served perhaps to fortify the basis of his generalizations about all early poetry.

A review of the Life and Works of Chatterton gave Scott an opportunity to discuss the characteristics of Middle-English poetry, but his general thesis, that the Rowley poems exhibit graces and refinements which are in marked contrast to the tenuity of idea and tautology of expression found in genuine works of the period, is supported by an argument which seems to be based on a characterization of the romances rather than on a close acquaintance with other Middle-English poetry. We notice a similar quality in what Scott says elsewhere concerning Frere's translation into Chaucerian English of the Battle of Brunanburgh: "This appears to us an exquisite imitation of the antiquated English poetry, not depending on an accumulation of hard words like the language of Rowley, which in everything else is refined and harmonious poetry, nor upon an agglomeration of consonants in the orthography, the resource of later and more contemptible forgers, but upon the style itself, upon its alternate strength and weakness, now nervous and concise, now diffuse and eked out by the feeble aid of expletives."[99] Of Middle-English poets other than Chaucer and the author or translator of Sir Tristrem, Laurence Minot was the one to whom Scott alluded most frequently, doubtless because in Ritson's edition of Minot that poet had become more accessible than most of his contemporaries. Whatever detailed work Scott did on the poetry of this period was chiefly in connection with Sir Tristrem, which has naturally been considered in relation with his other studies in romances.

Scott's familiarity with Chaucer appears in his numerous quotations from that poet, but usually the passages are cited to illustrate mediaeval manners rather than for any specifically literary purpose. Yet there are Chaucer enthusiasts among the characters of Woodstock and Peveril of the Peak.[100] Chaucer's fame was well enough established so that Scott seems on the whole to have taken his merit for granted, and not to have said much about it except in casual references.[101] Among general readers he must have been comparatively little known, however, notwithstanding the respect paid him by scholars. In 1805 we find Scott writing to Ellis that his scheme for editing a collection of the British Poets had fallen through, for, he said, "My plan was greatly too liberal to stand the least chance of being adopted by the trade at large, as I wished them to begin with Chaucer. The fact is, I never expected they would agree to it."[102]

Scott's review of Godwin's Life of Chaucer, one of the best known of his periodical essays, is altogether concerned with the manner in which Godwin did his work, and so exhibits Scott's ideas on the subject of biography and his methods of reviewing rather than his attitude towards Chaucer's poetry. His most definite remarks concerning Chaucer are to be found in his comments upon Dryden's Fables, as for example: "The Knight's Tale, whether we consider Chaucer's original poem, or the spirited and animated version of Dryden, is one of the best pieces of composition in our language";[103] "Of all Chaucer's multifarious powers, none is more wonderful than the humour with which he touched upon natural frailty, and the truth with which he describes the inward feelings of the human heart."[104] Yet he once called Troilus and Criseyde "a somewhat dull poem."[105] The Cock and the Fox, on the other hand, he speaks of as "a poem which, in grave ironical narrative, liveliness of illustration, and happiness of humorous description, yields to none that ever was written."[106]

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